The best, strangest parts of this Disney+ cartoon reinforce just how frustratingly generic the rest of it is.
When it comes to rebooting iconic cartoon characters for a modern TV program, the go-to mantra now is to hearken back to the classics. Rather than give familiar animated figures makeovers to appeal to the youths of today, now such individuals get designs and storylines evoking their appearances from back in the 1930s and 1940s.
It’s partially a trend born out of modern pop culture’s love for nostalgia, but also a recognition of how badly prior drastic 21st-century reboots of these properties have gone. Considering what a boondoggle Loonatics Unleashed was, for instance, why not give Bugs Bunny back his yellow gloves for Looney Tunes Cartoons?
So it is with Chip ‘n’ Dale: Park Life. After decades of the duo being largely known for their Rescue Rangers incarnation, the two are back to their original form: critters just plain getting into mischief. The shorts even have the two speak in squeaks rather than coherent dialogue, as they did in their very first appearance, Private Pluto. What’s old is new again, though Park Life does combine the old with a distinctly modern rapid-fire comedic sensibility.
Each episode of Park Life is divided into a trio of standalone segments. The only common elements between them are their stars (chipmunk brothers Chip and Dale) and their setting (an unnamed park). The antics in the first two episodes include the duo trying their best to tame a bunch of babies and Chip becoming addicted to stealing people’s packages in hope of finding a tool that can crack open nuts. Oodles of slapstick ensues, all told through animation from Xillam Animation Productions, the French company best known for the Oscar-nominated feature I Lost My Body.
Calling the segments of Park Life “silent” is a bit of a cheat. Nobody talks in English or with what humans consider words, but much like characters in a Sims game, Chip and Dale engage in exchanges composed entirely of Chipmunk noise. Their constant high-pitched chattering proves to be the most irritating part of the show and undercuts the whole point of trying to make the show more visually-minded. Either commit to no dialogue or just give them coherent sentences to speak; don’t try to have it both ways.
The darker and weird Park Life gets, the better it is.
Speaking of underwhelming elements, the lack of distinct personalities between the two leads also makes certain seven-minute segments feel like they drag on for far, far longer. After spending nearly an hour with this version of Chip and Dale, I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what sets them apart. They’re functionally palette-swapped copies of the same chipmunk. With that being said, the brevity of the individual storylines sometimes makes this a manageable flaw. Other segments, such as It Takes Two to Tangle, which follows the pair getting their tails sewn together, struggle mightily from the duo’s lack of disparate, clashing personalities.
If there’s an upside to the proceedings, though, it’s that certain storylines do embrace weird humor to a welcome degree. The segment Bird Brains, for instance, seems initially like it’ll just focus on Chip and Dale butting heads with a beloved peacock. Then, things take a sharp 180 when Dale believes Chip is murdering people. This comes complete with a visual gag where Chip drags a bag of berries across the park’s grass, leaving a giant, conspicuous, suspicious red streak in his wake. Who knew there’d be such dark humor in a Disney+ Chip and Dale cartoon?
The darker and weird Park Life gets, the better it is. Some of the visual gags of Chip trying to wrangle up babies, complete with the newborns emitting the sound effects of horses braying, are strange enough to get a chuckle out of even jaded viewers. Meanwhile, jokes juxtaposing the small size of our protagonists with their human-sized surroundings prove reliably amusing. The best of these is a running gag where the hand of a mailperson dropping off a package is played like an act of God, complete with a choir chanting on the soundtrack, when seen through the eyes of Chip and Dale from inside a mailbox.
Unfortunately, too many of the gags in Park Life are formulaic. The welcomely strange jokes are abnormalities rather than the norm. The animation is also erratic in quality, with certain characters (like any of the duckbilled babies) looking off in the program’s stretchy visual style. I did like the cute circular design of a mole who showed up briefly in Bird Brains, though. I can’t recall a mole ever looking like that in a kids’ cartoon. Park Life could have stood to have more idiosyncratic visuals in this vein.
After spending nearly an hour with this version of Chip and Dale, I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what sets them apart.
Even composer Vincent Artaud doesn’t deliver especially memorable work in his music despite Park Life’s lack of dialogue meaning that it frequently relies heavily on its soundtrack. Alas, the orchestral score is usually overwhelmed by the cartoony sound effects and Chip and Dale’s high-pitched gibberish. There are lots of great modern shorts (many of them from Disney!) that embrace an absence of verbal communication as a chance to deliver unforgettable scores. Alas, it doesn’t even come close to realizing that kind of potential.
It’s commendable that Chip ‘n’ Dale: Park Life wants to take the characters of Chip and Dale to more classic places. The willingness to translate these Disney cartoon staples into a new visual style is similarly admirable. But overall, it’s just not consistently funny enough to live up to its best moments. Hopefully, future episodes embrace more weird humor, as well as the possibilities of Artaud’s score. Otherwise, this will be joining The 7D as another fizzled-out attempt to revive classic cartoon characters in the 21st century.
Chip ‘N’ Dale: Park Life scampers onto Disney Plus on July 28th.